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Following the 2007 introduction of the iPhone, every mobile phone maker put their game faces on, while scrambling to ready competing products behind the scenes. It took Nokia about 10 months to release a concept video of their then-favored Symbian operating system featuring a touch interface. It would be months more before actual phones appeared on the market, too little and too late to stop the mounting efforts of iOS and Android.
But the Finns are survivors, made of stronger stuff than falling by the wayside and deciding to sell netbooks instead (okay, they tried that too). What doesn't kill them only makes them seek revenge at any cost. Sometimes, that calls for an unspeakable alliance; one that causes proudly Scandinavian employees to protest by walking out of their offices in the darkness of the midday, and long-time Symbian fanboys to shut down their blogs.
And so earlier this year, under the command of new CEO Stephen Elop, Nokia dove off its so-called "burning platform" with Olympic grace, landing in the arms of a lucrative partnership with Microsoft and its critically-acclaimed Windows Phone 7 OS. As the saying goes, the enemy of my enemy writes me fat checks.
On December 7th 2011, after six months of rapid development, Nokia execs appeared on stage at an event in Singapore to announce the availability of the Lumia 710 and Lumia 800 smartphones — arguably their finest touchscreen devices yet, and certainly the most beautiful Windows Phones yet seen. Setting it apart from the pack are exclusive apps such as Nokia Maps and Drive, with free turn-by-turn driving directions, and a Nokia Music store with millions of songs at competitive prices (about S$1.30/track).
The 800's industrial design is a marvel: human-centric in its gentle, palm-fitting curves, while maintaining enough minimalist style to face that most elegant of competitors, the iPhone 4, and have its head held high. Highlights include curved glass atop a 3.7" AMOLED screen with rich color contrast, a charging port that closes for sleeker contours when not in use, and a plastic polycarbonate body that feels as strong and luxurious as an aluminium alloy. Nokia N9 owners in Singapore may experience deja vu — they are nearly identical designs — but some shapes are too perfect to use only once. Just ask Apple.
Was the decision to abandon its former operating system for Windows Phone 7.5 Mango a wise one? Strategically, for the company's long-term health, perhaps not. For the sanity of the customer, a resounding yes. Nokia's previous software efforts were perpetually behind the curve in usability and modernity, and a nightmare for most normal users. Their halfhearted Ovi-branded services offered a haphazard attempt at mobile photos, games, filesharing, and rudimentary social networking.
In contrast, the Windows Phone platform favors tight integration and a consistent user experience across apps and devices — two things that have made the iPhone popular with everyday users. It's updated and improved upon at a steady clip, and looks thoroughly up-to-the-minute. Top on the user-centric scorecard is the fact that by enforcing guidelines and app security, Windows Phone is the antithesis of desktop Windows's constant virus paranoia. Where it differs from now established mobile conventions, such as a grid of icons that you tap to enter individual apps, some effort must naturally be made to learn how things work again.
Ultimately, that challenge lies at the heart of the Lumia proposition. Why should one learn how a new phone works, if you're happily ensconced in an iPhone or Android world? No matter how strong the pull, it must be matched by some measure of push from the device already in one's pocket.
Something a Nokia exec mentioned at the beginning of the event suggested an answer. Another recently announced Nokia family of phones, named Asha and designed for developing markets, is intended to "Connect the next billion to the internet". Many here are already online, but perhaps the Lumia, too, can reach an untapped market of sorts in first world Singapore, and avoid a bloodbath with the two entrenched giants.
You see the types every day. The many still on the company's own Symbian devices, the BlackBerry addicts with shrinking BBM contact lists, first-time phone buyers, and the smartphone holdouts who've held on as best they could, but now desperately need to know what Angry Birds is like. For them, the Lumia phones are as good as any on the market. From that base of new customers, loyalty can grow into passion and powerful persuasion. It will take time, but the Finns are survivors and Microsoft has money to burn. Those are good odds.
Brandon Lee is a Singapore-based copywriter and user experience specialist.
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